Three astronauts will launch on Thursday morning local time aboard the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft for a three-month long mission to China’s first permanent space station. It will be the longest human space mission in Chinese history, and the country’s first crewed fight in nearly five years.
Launch of the crew aboard a Long March 2F rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center is scheduled for June 17 at 0122 UTC (June 16 at 9:22 p.m. EDT).
Until the advent of the reusable Falcon 9, most first stages of rockets fell into the ocean, on the lightly populated steppes of Kazakhstan (Russian launches from Baikonur), or crashed beside and even into rural villages, throwing up huge clouds of toxic propellants in the process (Chinese launches).
The month of April is concluding with a string of launches from Russia, the United States, China and South America. Things kicked off on Friday with SpaceX’s launch of Crew-2 to the International Space Station (ISS). On Sunday, a Russian Soyuz rocket launched 36 OneWeb satellite broadband spacecraft from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.
One of the final United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rockets is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Monday afternoon. That flight will be followed by the fifth launch of China’s Long March 6 booster. Launches by Europe’s Vega and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets are scheduled over the next two days.
China will close out the month on Thursday by launching Tianhe-1 core module for that nation’s first permanent space station aboard a Long March 5B booster.
In a few short weeks, the International Space Station (ISS) will no longer be the only station in Earth orbit.
China plans to launch the Tianhe core module core module of its first permanent space station aboard a Long March 5B rocket from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site. Spaceflight Now‘s launch calendar has the flight taking place on April 29.
China de-orbited its Tiangong-2 space station on Friday, ending a precursor mission to the establishment of a large, multi-module station beginning in 2020.
Launched on Sept. 15, 2016, Tiangong-2 hosted a 30-day visit by astronauts Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong beginning the following month. The Shenzhou 11 crew tested out the station’s life support and other systems, performed experiments, released a satellite, and grew rice and vegetables before returning to Earth after 33 days in space.
In April 2017, the Tianzhou-1 cargo ship docked with the space station. The automated ship refueled Tiangong-1 and un-docked and re-docked with the station twice in the months that followed. Tianzhou-1 subsequently separated from the station and was de-orbited on Sept. 22, 2017.
Tiangong-2 was 10.4 m (34 ft) long and weighed 8,600 kg (18,960 lb). That is about half the size of the Salyut 1 space station the Soviet Union launched in 1971.
The station’s predecessor, Tiangong-1, hosted six Chinese astronauts during two crew visits in 2012 and 2013.
China plans to launch the Tianhe-1 core module for a permanent space station in 2020. Two laboratory modules would be subsequently attached to the station over the next two to three years. The facility will be roughly the size of the Mir space station built by the Soviet Union beginning in 1986 and about one-fifth the mass of the International Space Station.
China has opened up its human spaceflight program to other nations. European astronauts have been training for flights to the new space station aboard Shenzhou vehicles. And China has offered to fly foreign experiments to the facility.
Sharply conflicting opinions about the future of the International Space Station (ISS) and America’s path forward in space were on view last week in a Senate hearing room turned boxing ring.
In one corner was NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenamier, representing a Trump Administration that wants to end direct federal funding for ISS in 2025 in order to pursue an aggressive campaign of sending astronauts back to the moon. NASA would maintain a presence in Earth orbit, becoming one of multiple users aboard a privatized ISS or privately-owned stations.
China plans to launch the core of its permanent Tianhe-1 space station around 2018, with full assembling of the multi-module facility due to be complete about four years later, officials said last week.
China will end a three-year hiatus in human spaceflight late this year with the launch of the two-person Shenzhou-11 spacecraft to the new Tiangong-2 space station, Chinese officials say. The crew will carry out a 30-day mission aboard the space station before returning to Earth.
Tiangong-2, which is set for launch sometime during the third quarter, is larger and more capable than the Tiangong-1 space station launched in 2011. The first station was visited by two three-person crews on missions lasting 12 and 15 days. The second crew landed in June 2013.
“We have specifically modified the interior of the new space lab to make it more livable for mid-term stays for our astronauts,” said Wang Zhongyang, a spokesman for the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST).
“Unlike Tiangong-1, Tiangong-2 will be our first genuine space lab,” he added.
Tiangong-2 is similar in design and size to the Soviet Salyut 6 and Salyut 7 space stations flown in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The new Chinese station has docking ports at both ends to allow for resupply missions.
China plans to send up its new Tianzhou-1 supply ship during the first half of 2017 to verify propellant transfer and other key technologies. The cargo vehicle will be launched by the new medium-lift Long March-7 rocket, which is scheduled to make its inaugural flight later this year.
Chinese officials are not discussing follow-on missions to Tiangong-2. However, some reports say that a second human mission and an additional cargo ship would be launched to the space station in 2018.
Officials also announced plans to launch the core of the permanent Tianhe-1 space station around 2018. The permanent facility will have multiple docking ports to allow for the docking of additional modules. Assembly of the space station is expected to be completed around 2022.